Ion, the Patriarchal Blessing and the Father of a Nation

Ion by Euripides. Scene: Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Ruins of Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Enter Hermes (Lines 5-20)

“I have come here to Delphi where Phoebus Apollo sits at earths mid-center, gives his prophecies to men, and passes judgement on what is happening now and what will come. For in the famous city of the Greeks called after Pallas Athena of the Golden Spear, Phoebus compelled King Erechtheus’ daughter Creusa to take him as her lover – in that place below Athene’s hill whose northern scarp the Attic lords have named the Long Rocks. Her father, by the god’s own wish, did not suspect her, and she carried her child in secret. And when the time had come, her son was born, inside the palace. Then she took the child to the same cave where she had lain with Phoebus, and in a wicker cradle there exposed him to his death.”

Hermes was instructed by his brother Apollo to bring his baby to his Temple at Delphi, and deliver his son to the Priestesses there for safekeeping.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi Painting by Giovanni Ruggero

(Lines 52-75)

“His childhood home has been about the altars where he played and wandered. But when he was fully grown, The Delphians appointed him their steward, the trusted guardian of Apollo’s gold. And he has lived a holy life until this day, within the shrine. Creusa, whose son he is, has married Xuthus. This is how the marriage occurred. A war was surging high between Chalcidians of Euboea and Athens, whose ally, Xuthus, helped to end the strife. Though he was not a native, but Achaean, Son of Aeolus, son of Zeus, the prize he won was marriage to Creusa. But in all these years no children have been born. Desire for children is now bringing them to Apollo’s shrine. Apollo seems indifferent, but he controls their fate and guides them here. When Xuthus comes before the shrine, the god will give him his own son, declaring Xuthus the father. Thus the boy shall be received into his mothers house, made known to her. And while Apollo’s intrigue is kept secret, his son may have what is his due. Moreover, Apollo will bestow on him the name of Ion, make that name renowned throughout Greece as founder of ancient cities.”

Young bowman called Ion, a servant at the Temple of Apollo

As a part of his duties at the Delphian Temple, Ion meets visitors and relays their arrival to the Pythian Prophetess with offerings and sacrifices. He cleans the grounds of the temple by shooting arrows at birds but intentionally misses them, since birds are sacred omens used by the Gods to communicate with humankind.

Ion receives Xuthus and Creusa and conducts them inside. They ask questions about Ions past and learns that he was abandoned as a baby. While Xuthus goes inside alone, she tells Ion that she knows a friend who had to abandon her baby.

Volcanic fumes below the Pythian Prophetess, one of the most powerful women in Ancient Greece

Xuthus comes outside from meeting the Pythian Prophetess and embraces Ion as his son. Ion is shocked but his father explains that the Prophetess told him that the first youth he would meet before leaving the temple would be his son. Xuthus tells Ion that he had a lover when he was younger in the military and that she must have brought his baby to the Temple of Apollo. The name “Ion” is derived from the Greek word “ἰόν,” which means “going”.

Creusa then enters to meet the Prophetess and learns she will never have another child. Later when she is alone an old servant from her father advises her to take revenge against both the gods and her husband for abandoning her to infamy and shame since Ion is a son of Xuthus and not her son. The old man tells Creusa that she must not allow the bastard child of a foreigner to inherit the throne.

Creusa laments that she has been completely abandoned just like she abandoned her child and gives her consent to the old tutor’s plan to poison Ion at the adoption ceremony. The old tutor delivers the poison but the cup he poisoned was poured out unto the ground as a libation to the Gods. The birds were drinking the spilled wine and the bird that drank from Ions libation died to the poison in front of everyone there. Ion and a group of Delphians searched for Creusa to punish her, but she had taken refuge inside of the Temple of Apollo.

Ion confronts his (unbeknownst to him) mother at the Temple of Apollo

Ion confronts Creusa and while she tells her story to him, the Priestess brings the wicker cradle the baby was found in. Creusa realizes that Ion is her real son and embraces him. Ion is very confused now and doesn’t know who to believe, the story told by Xuthus or Creusa. When he goes inside the shrine to ask for himself, Athena appears and tells him that he is Creusa and Apollos son and as she leaves, Athena orders them not to tell Xuthus but to let him think that Ion is his son.

Athena addresses Ion

Ion’s story in Greek mythology is dissimilar to many other Greek heroes in several key aspects:

  1. Lack of Heroic Deeds: Unlike many Greek heroes, Ion does not engage in traditional heroic activities like slaying monsters or embarking on epic quests. Oracles usually tell heroes to go on quests to slay monsters
  2. Manipulation by Deities: Ion’s story involves significant manipulation by the gods, particularly Apollo and Athena, who play pivotal roles in orchestrating his recognition and the deception involving his parentage.
  3. Focus on Lineage: Ion’s narrative is primarily centered on his lineage and his role as the future founder of a Greek people, the Ionians. It highlights the importance of heritage and destiny in his life.

The story of Ion shares more elements with the story of Jacob in the Bible, than with the other Greek heroes. Ion and his mother Creusa deceived his father Xuthus in order to receive the Patriarchal Blessing. Jacob and his mother Rebekah deceived his father Isaac in order to receive the Patriarchal Blessing. Their methods were different but the purpose was the same, to avoid outright violence. Ion had to be careful as an adopted child to avoid violence from his foster parents and Jacob had to be careful to avoid violence from his brother Esau.

Jacob wanted to avoid the situation of Cain who killed his brother to take away Abel’s divine blessing so Jacob resorted to deception encouraged by his mother.

Rebekah’s plan for Jacob

There is also a sense of moral ambiguity in both stories, since the God in the Torah never approves or condemns Rebekah’s actions and in the story of Ion his father the God of Truth, Apollo is never seen in the story while his brother Hermes and his sister Athena appear instead to cover his indiscretions.

Both narratives involve parental favoritism, the use of subterfuge to secure a divine blessing, and the complexities of family relationships. The heroes, Ion and Jacob, each navigated a delicate path to receive their rightful inheritance and assume a significant role as the father of nations, the Ionians and Israel.

The story of Jesus also shares some similarities with Ion. They were both the Son of God and had to prove to the world they were worthy of receiving the throne during a religious festival. But while Ion and Jacob had to resort to subterfuge in their private lives to become the father of nations and establish their kingdoms on earth, the Messiah proclaimed his divine lineage publicly to the authorities of Jerusalem and endured the suffering of their betrayal to become the Son of Man worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.